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Training South African engineers

South Africans have a right to be sceptical. All too frequently they and their country have been short changed in promised skills or technology transfers. Perhaps they have expected too much. Perhaps in the early years of democracy they were naïve, too trusting.

So it comes as a breath of fresh air when a dozen or so young South African engineers, the first of a group that will be central to delivering on one of South Africa’s single largest projects, are united in their enthusiasm for the training they are receiving and the new skills they are developing in France.

That is the case with the engineers recruited by Gibela earlier this year for its 20-year project to build and supply PRASA (Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa) with 600 ultra-modern passenger trains. These engineers, drawn from a range of industries are the first of a cohort who will drive a project that will help transform South Africa’s industrial capacity as well as its rail commuter sector. They will be heading the design teams, the maintenance teams, the validation teams and the assembly teams that will see this project through. And, in some respects, they are learning about the rail equipment industry from scratch.

Let’s take a look at how the trainee engineers are viewed by their French counterparts.

If there is a single golden thread that runs through the training of the South African engineers, it is the high regard with which they are held by their French trainers at Alstom.

As Pierre-Bertrand Thierry, Alstom Transport’s Training Manager, PRASA Project states unhesitatingly of the trainees: “They are very curious and very respectful. They act very positively and they have a thirst to learn.”

The South Africans are the kernel of Gibela’s product engineering team, specialising in all of the technical issues ranging from bogies to traction that go into the manufacture of trains. And they have been exposed to Alstom’s top experts in each field.

M. Thierry explains that the length of training is variable – anything from one or two months to as long as two years for those involved in the more-technical or more-specialised aspects of train design and manufacture. It is worth recalling that the trains being built for PRASA will be state of the art, the world’s most technologically advanced.

So, to the extent that it is necessary, M. Thierry continues, the training programmes have been customised for each of the engineers.

“We have organised the training into three phases:

  • Phase one: Introduction to the PRASA project and Alstom’s organisation
  • Phase two: Focus on general train-design processes and generic sub-systems
  • Phase three: Specific training in the PRASA train and sub-systems.

“But it’s not simply theoretical. In parallel the project team’s skills are being honed through participation in engineering activities at Alstom’s various facilities, and not just in France.

“And from another standpoint, the training programme has been a significant networking opportunity – our people are building professional relationships that will serve them well as the PRASA project gathers momentum.

“We are well into the training process with the third phase that I have mentioned above having started in October this year.”

When it comes to skills and technology transfers, virtually all of the trains will be built at a new, state-of-the-art facility to be located at Dunnotar to the east of Johannesburg. 

Gibela is, of course, the empowerment consortium created by France’s Alstom, an international world leader in rail transport equipment. And it is Alstom that is providing the training this first group of engineers is receiving -- training, transferring technological skills, transferring management techniques and sharing intellectual property.

In one-on-one interviews, each and every one of the trainee group agreed that all of the French engineers providing the training were welcoming, were open and, perhaps most importantly, were available at any time to help and explain.

“We are being taken through the entire process of designing and building trains, from top to bottom, from bogey to pantograph. There’s a lot to learn. They are training us in skills needed to design trains and run the manufacturing facilities back home in South Africa. We know that we shall always be able to call on Alstom when necessary – but we are becoming autonomous.”

“It’s not just the technology. It’s also learning that this is a team effort. Learning that we don’t or can’t work in silos. Learning that what each of us does complements the work of others.”

But, “the French do things differently from what I was expecting”, one of the group put it. And that view was echoed by some of the other group members.

“The Anglo-Saxon way of holding meetings, is to finish with individual responsibilities being delegated. The French way is to discuss and debate so that everyone understands what the other participants are doing, why they are doing it and how individual contributions mesh with each other. The way they approach things is in the detail.”

“The people who are teaching me are specialists, with skills that are far more-focussed than I have come across in South Africa. I believe I’m learning a lot more than I might have done in South Africa where engineers are normally more generalist. I am learning skills and technology developed by Alstom and that are specific to it.”

“More importantly, we are not just learning how things are done, but why they are.”

“I’m starting to understand the different dynamics of different trains. We shall be designing trains for South African tracks, with their specific gauges and curves. We are learning how to design from the requirements of the user – the passenger. You don’t just build a train and hope the passenger will slot in. We shall be building for South Africans in South Africa. And when we start building trains for other African countries, they will be designed with those people’s specific needs in mind.”

“Yes I have already gained new skills and knowledge, and I’ll acquire more when I return to France for more training. But I believe the most important lesson is that we are part of a team -- a team that reaches beyond South Africa. It’s a team in which every individual member can count on every other. From the moment I arrived at Alstom I was part of a team – accepted as an engineer – not just a trainee. That shows a great deal of confidence in us. ”

Will the client, PRASA, be happy that technology and skills are being transferred? Will South Africa gain from this project?

Judging from the responses from this group of engineers, the emphatic answer should be “Yes”.